Live Sound: The practicality vs. quality debate

The onus on touring sound equipment manufacturers to produce gear that is compact, practical and – perhaps above all – cost efficient is now greater than ever. But is there a danger that these pressures are having an impact on sound quality? David Davies finds out.

The explosion in the number of live music events over the past 10 years has been one of the true success stories of the European entertainment industry. But for audio manufacturers keen to respond to the concomitant change in requirements of live sound systems, it’s a development that hasn’t been without its inherent difficulties.

For instance, as artists’ income from recorded work has declined, the need to optimise revenue from live performance has become more acute. Reducing overheads – not least transportation costs – has led to an obvious demand for multi-functional audio products that can deliver extensive feature-sets in compact form-factors. The less gear required for a touring production – particularly one crossing countries and even continents – the better.

With equipment prices simultaneously being driven down, the overall expectations of manufacturers have arguably reached new heights during the past few years – and all this at a time of increased inter-market competition. “Quality cannot be compromised as competition is high because there are more manufacturers now,” says Dave Millard from Full Fat Audio.

With that in mind, we decided to explore some of the challenges facing manufacturers as they attempt to juggle these multiple requirements, focusing in particular on the matter of practicality – and whether there is a risk that it might ever be achieved at the price of quality.

The virtues of Vero

Vero (main picture) is a new loudspeaker system from Funktion-One that is claimed to achieve a balanced equation of quality and feature-set. “Every detail of its composition has been meticulously considered and developed,” states Funktion-One founder Tony Andrews. “This delivers two key objectives: exceptional audio performance and user-friendly functionality.”

In terms of practicality, Andrews is able to reel off a long list of plus-points for the new system. For a start, Vero is a “complete touring system”, comprising Vero speakers, flying system, amplification, cabling and a prediction software package named ‘Projection’, which allows users to achieve optimum array designs for smooth audience coverage and impact.

According to Andrews, Projection has been “designed to make the user experience as free-flowing as possible. The array-building function is straightforward to edit and manipulate. Live load information allows for optimum rigging and alerts the user if setup exceeds the flyware’s limits.”

Another key feature, Geometric Energy Summation (GES), helps to eliminate the need for “inconvenient and expensive” delay positions up to distances of 1,000ft or more. “GES enables natural tailoring of coverage pattern and sound pressure levels to keep sound focused on the audience, controlling the off-site environmental concerns,” comments Andrews.

The Funktion-One mastermind also draws attention to the flying system, “which unlike many others, can be adjusted while under load” – and an amplifier rack, featuring Lab.gruppen PLM20k+ units – that is “equipped for the challenges and rigours of touring environments. It is fully shock-mounted, meaning it protects the amplifiers and power distribution inside and is fitted with retractable doors that protect against the elements. The doors are conveniently stowed within the roof of the rack when the amplifiers are in use.”

This strong emphasis on user-friendliness even extends to the Vero transportation dolly. “It is completely bespoke and is designed for the challenges faced when working under the time-sensitive pressures of live event and touring productions and it self-aligns to the Vero boxes as they are landed. The 8in, solid polyurethane wheels don’t deform under pressure and are designed to carry the maximum load capacity over varied terrain. Its swivel bearing has been specially selected for its ability to handle high levels of sideways shock load.”

While Andrews recognises the pressure on manufacturers to optimise the cost-base, it is clear he believes that this needn’t be at the expense of quality. “While Vero’s primary aim is to achieve the best sound quality possible, its intelligent design features ensure that the user experience is straightforward, making efficient use of tight production timeframes,” he says.

Above: The main stage of last year’s Vive Latino Festival in Mexico City, which featured one of the largest Nexo STM systems ever deployed

Another prominent loudspeaker system – Nexo’s STM (Scale Through Modularity) – speaks of a similar desire to balance versatility and feature set. As international touring manager Stuart Kerrison recalls, the R&D process for STM was preceded by a lengthy process of consultation.

“Before we started designing anything, we spent over a year doing market research with leading international PA rental companies, asking them about their business operations and the challenges they were facing,” he says. “Regardless of territory, the answers were almost always the same – problems with diminishing income from rental, other factors such as video and lighting getting priority over audio on production budgets, and requirement to invest in multiple ‘application-specific’ line array systems to suit different venue sizes – often leading to expensive systems sitting in the warehouse costing money, waiting for the next suitable gig.”

The overriding response, he continues, was in favour of “a versatile system that could provide outstanding performance in all sizes of venue. At the same time, system riggers wanted a system they could rig alone without having to involve local hands in the critical operations of flying a PA.”

STM is the painstaking result of these deliberations. “The ‘one-man rigging’ system enables one person to carry out all the technical aspects of rigging a system from one position, alone, at the rear of the cluster, regardless of system size,” comments Kerrison. “The system is also fast to rig up and down, saving time and, therefore, money.”

Based around four products, the modular design also means that “a touring production can go from stadium or arena gigs to a one-off promo gig in a club, and use exactly the same cabinets, amps, rigging, etc. There is no need to sub-hire a separate small system for the occasion, saving money and hassle.”

But Kerrison is at pains to highlight the fact that just as much effort has gone into the inner workings of the STM boxes. “It is important to emphasise that in addition to these innovative rigging and trucking features, an enormous amount of innovation in cabinet and driver design was introduced in the design of STM to ensure that audio quality is never compromised in order to achieve practicality,” he affirms.

Robust and reliable

With standalone power amplifier makers feeling the squeeze in any case because of the growing popularity of self-powered speakers, it is to be expected that they have had to think more carefully than ever before about their offer simply to stand a hope of retaining market share. One way in which this has manifested itself is increased integration of onboard DSP.

Dave Millard, managing director of UK-based manufacturer Full Fat Audio, observes: “We are driven by customer demand and close relationships to distributors, dealers and end-users. Most amplifier manufacturers now offer onboard processing of one type or another, and have done so for quite a few years now. It is certainly a requirement to now offer a complete package.”

In terms of FFA’s own product line in this regard, Millard pinpoints the FFA-6004 amplifier (4 x 1,500W 4 ohms) as “the key product. [Moreover] our DSP has features that other manufacturers don’t; for example, we offer extra DSP channels to allow connections to other amplifiers without onboard DSP.”

He refutes the suggestion that portability is a defining factor, however, “as the amplifier technology utilised by the majority of manufacturers has at the moment stabilised in the physical sense; most amplifiers are roughly the same size and weight now, whereas 10 years ago some amps could be four times the weight and size for one amplifier of a quarter the power output”. Of course, integrating DSP inside the amplifier “does save the cost of a second enclosure to house the electronics”.

Powersoft is another amplifier maker to have acknowledged the trend for powerful onboard DSP with products including the X Series (pictured, below), which among other features delivers support for Audinate’s Dante media networking technology. For Powersoft sales and marketing director Luca Giorgi, the advent of highly efficient Class D amplifier topologies are among the developments to be helping manufacturers balance cost, practicality and quality considerations.

“The raison d’être of the pro-audio industry is to provide a high level of sonic quality and reliability,” he says. “Therefore cost reduction can only be applied up to a certain level before being detrimental to the overall quality of the product and its performance. Maintaining the right balance between cost and performance is not an easy task, but Class D amplification and switching mode technologies embraced and pioneered by Powersoft 20 years ago have helped to reach this goal.”

Over at Yamaha Commercial Audio, Karl Christmas also emphasises the advantages of DSP-enabled amplifiers such as its TXn models – “along with saving rack space and cabling, the TXn series allows for precise remote control and monitoring [that is] unimaginable with conventional amplifiers” – as well as their inclusion of a mini-YGDAI card slot “which allows them to be configured with literally any kind of system”.

Christmas also points to Yamaha’s reputation for reliability as being a potent aspect of the overall sales brew. “Of course, one of the most important features of touring amplifiers is reliability,” he says. “Whether indoor or outdoor, touring is a punishing environment for electrical equipment, and Yamaha Commercial Audio products are legendary for being able to withstand the rigours of the road.”

(Evermore) compact consoles

For fixed applications, smaller consoles spell increased audience capacity (and therefore revenue); on the road, they mean reduced space in the van and thus potentially lower transportation costs. The overriding trend for console design this past decade, then, has been for more compact desks – a development facilitated by the arrival of digital technology that has also paved the way for sophisticated onboard effects and the gradual reduction in need for outboard gear.

Allen & Heath’s Qu-Pac digital mixer occupies a space at the crossroads of these various requirements. An ultra-compact mixer with both a built-in touchscreen and iPad control app, Qu-Pac is intended to suit live music and installed sound in environments including colleges, hotels and bars. It offers 16 mono inputs, three stereo inputs and 12 mix outputs on the rear panel, but that can be expanded up to 38-in/28-out by connecting to Allen & Heath’s family of remote AudioRacks over Cat5.

Features that demonstrate the product’s flexibility include total recall of settings and preamps, 18-track recording to USB via Qu-Drive, a choice of personal monitoring solutions, channel ducking, multichannel USB streaming, and the iLive FX Library.

Allen & Heath senior product manager Nicola Beretta confirms the desire to offer a highly portable solution suitable for touring acts including those “who are doing a lot of fly-in shows”. Also in play was an awareness that operator skillsets can now vary dramatically, particularly in the house of worship market.

“With more and more bands investing in their own equipment and the volunteer-driven house of worship market, we always need to be conscious of the need to balance ease-of-use with providing comprehensive features our more experienced customers require,” says Beretta. “Built-in touchscreens are a great blessing for newcomers to mixing – a sea of knobs or quirky navigation keys and trackballs are unfamiliar and intimidating, but we’ve found that the smartphone and tablet generation quickly feels at home with well-designed touch interfaces. It’s an inherently intuitive way to work.”

Quality will out…?

Versatility, variable skill-sets, portability, practicality… there’s no doubt that it’s a heady brew of requirements that now confront R&D teams when they sit down to begin deliberations about possible new products. But Nexo’s Kerrison speaks for many in observing that, when all is said and done, any manufacturer who undercuts on quality will almost certainly be consigned to diminishing returns in the long-run.

“It is possible that some manufacturers may have sacrificed certain areas of system performance to achieve tight goals regarding weight and size of cabinet, but at the end of the day I don’t think you can get away with that kind of thing for too long,” he says. “A sound system will always be ultimately judged on how it sounds, particularly by the engineers who have to mix on it and whose next job relies on the quality of sound they are able to produce. If a system doesn’t perform adequately sound-wise, it will have a hard time becoming accepted – no matter how practical it is.”

David Davies has been writing about professional AV and broadcast for 15 years. He is currently managing editor of Sports Video Group Europe and has been a member of the ISE Daily, IBC Daily and AES Daily teams.